Michiel Heyns has fast become one of South Africa’s best novelists. His latest book, Lost Ground, is perhaps one of the finest to have been published in the last few years. Well-written, engaging and almost perfectly paced the book stands above many of its coeval. To be sure, it comes out of a genre of writing that is almost entirely South African; its description of South Africa’s social and spatial peculiarities will be familiar to readers of South African literature. And issues of identity and belonging are never far from the writer’s thoughts. Yet unlike the prosaic unblinking engagements with place, people and emotion of the Coetzees, Gordimers and Gulguts, which at times Heyns comes close to, Lost Ground’s narrative is happily subject to sudden comical outbursts. Although one could never label it a humorous novel it does escape those austere, one might almost say Calvinist, texts that populated South Africa’s literature.
Like many recently published novels, Lost Ground takes the form of a crime novel. The narrator Peter Jacobs returns to South Africa to investigate the murder of his cousin in the small town of Alfredville in the Little Karoo – the place where he grew up. His cousin, a university educated ‘bright young thing’ of the dorp, had returned for what looked like a short stay before going onto better things. However, much to the chagrin of her parents and most of the other whites, she stayed on and ended up marrying Hector Williams, who is a coloured, an ANC struggle hero and the head of the district’s police.
Having left the country in 1988, to avoid conscription, Jacobs has returned infrequently and admits to having had little interest in the country’s development post-apartheid. This is until he is taken with the idea of writing a ‘state of the nation’ piece for The New Yorker using the circumstances of his cousin’s death as a heuristic. He has been informed that she was killed by her husband in the mist of a jealous rage and feels, to begin with, that the story may have some resonance with Othello.
Jacobs, however, finds many surprises awaiting him. Not least is that his old friend and first ‘misunderstood’ love, Bennie, has returned to the town as well and is now, seemingly, happily married with a wife and two children. The twist and turns of Jacobs’ investigation is an accurate and extremely well observed representation of small town South Africa. The overt racial prejudice that is so openly expressed, the confused engagement of some with the ‘new South Africa’ and the perennial dusty indigent township, umbilicaled to its white matriarch, are marvelously rendered.
The only thing that might be questioned about Heyns’s portrayal of Alfredville is that almost all the men living in this reactionary Karroo dorp are gay. The vet, the hotel owner, the hotel owner’s assistant, his old friend Bennie and every male member of the Retief family are all homosexuals. However, such is Heyns’s narrative gift that one hardly notices this unusual demographic. But there is one question that can’t be so easily brushed aside. This is, why a well-known struggle hero, held by the ANC in high regard, would end up the police commander of a one-horse town like Alfredville?
This unusual ANC ‘deployment’ is confirmed when Bennie, Peter’s ex-lover, who takes on the role of acting commander, bemoans that it is a dead end job in a dead end dorp. There may, however, be several reasons for this that have little to do with plausibility and all to do with the Heyns’ plot and his verdict on the country. One is that Bennie foresees his replacement and we are shown that the tragedy of Bennie’s life has never really been of his own making. Forced into conscription under the old regime, Bennie now knows that he will always remain a subaltern because of his white skin and this realization partly explains what happens to him. But there is another agenda here that is equally political surrounding Williams’ past. He is in many ways the analogue of Robert MacBride, a struggle hero who had the blood of innocents on his hands. This not only fits with the plot but also questions the notion of ideal justice and its relevance in contemporary South Africa. Heyns seems to subtly question whether certain notions of justice have any place in a country where almost every person is tainted with either a moral or an actual crime. find
This all forms part of Peter Jacobs’ sense of the rootless alienation, of someone who has tried to find an undiscoverable path through the labyrinth. South Africa’s identity, Heyns seems to suggest, is one that defies any single rational explanation and defies a normative understanding. Jacobs, on his road to discovery, finds to his confusion that he, like South Africa, is an entity with lost and confused ideals. With echoes of Alain Fournier, Heyns sees the simple black and white of Jacobs’ childhood as a lost domain.